In the antebellum years, freedom and unfreedom often overlapped, even in states that were presumed “free states.” According to a new book by Kevin Waite, this was in part because the reach of the Slave South extended beyond the traditional South into newly admitted free and slave states. States like California found their legislatures filled with former Southerners who hoped to see California and others align with their politics. “They pursued that vision through diplomacy, migration, and armed conquest. By the late 1850s, slaveholders and their allies had transformed the southwestern quarter of the nation – California, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Utah – into a political client of the plantation states.” But it didn’t end there. The “continental South” as Waite calls it, had visions of extending into Central and South America as well as the Pacific. In West of Slavery, Waite “brings to light what contemporaries recognized but historians have described only in part: The struggle over slavery played out on a transcontinental stage.”
California Bound: Slavery on the New Frontier, 1848–1865 September 26, 2018 – April 28, 2019 curated by: Tyree Boyd-Pates, History Curator and Program Manager, and Taylor Bythewood-Porter, Assistant History Curator (https://caamuseum.org/exhibitions/2018/california-bound-slavery-on-the-new-frontier-18481865)
- Kevin WaiteAssistant Professor in the Department of History at Durham University
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
Alina Scott: So if I think back to my first U. S. History class, I definitely got the impression that the West was purely anti-slavery. And it wasn’t until I visited an exhibit at the California African American Museum that was complicated for me, and I’ll link to that in the show notes. But was that the case was California that was admitted as a free state and other Western free states? Purely anti-slavery?
Kevin Waite: Yeah, it’s interesting, Alina. I actually had a relatively similar experience myself and sort of belatedly coming to the history of freedom in the American West. In my case, I had to go to Pennsylvania to do a Ph.D. at Penn to really learn about slavery in California and New Mexico and Arizona. I spent 14 years in the California school system, and we never really covered this subject. We did not cover the subject because I didn’t have excellent teachers. I certainly did it just It wasn’t really on anybody’s radar 15 or so years ago, and I think that’s changing that. I think I mean the exhibited cam that you referenced I think is part of a broader interest in slavery in the American West, and we know that the West wasn’t a landscape of freedom. Somewhere between 500 to 1500 African American slaves were forcibly transported to California during and after the Gold Rush, and they labored beside an untold number of unfree indigenous workers. So California really was a free state in name only, and through the antebellum period through the 18 fifties. California basically voted with the slave South on most of the major political issues of the day, and the story was relatively similar in the other parts of the Southwest, in New Mexico, in Utah, in what would become Arizona, the entire all three of those territories legalized African American slavery before the Civil War.
That’s so fascinating and definitely not taught enough. And I’m really thankful for your book because it really does open the door to these types of conversations. But in your book West of slavery, you describe a network of Southerners that included quote revolutionaries from Texas, congressman from California, cabinet secretaries from Mississippi and Tennessee, territorial officeholders in New Mexico, etcetera, Um, and you call all these connections um, and the connections in the South, the Continental South. So can you talk about what that entailed and the significance of the Continental South in the years leading up to the Civil War?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. So the continental South, as I define it in the book, is this sort of broad but loose coalition of partisans who worked to defend slavery and the interests of slaveholders. Basically, in the southwestern quarter of the United States, this wasn’t sort of a perfectly choreographed political movement. There was plenty of internal dissent within the Continental South, But this coalition of slaveholders and their allies was a good deal more durable and nimble and successful than a lot of people think. Basically, they created this sphere of influence that stretched across the entire southern half of the country. And so in the book with this concept of the continental South, I’m arguing that we should think of places like New Mexico and Arizona and Utah, California as really Southern in a lot of ways. And so this this continental South sort of channeled its energies through a couple of major projects. One they attempted to build a transcontinental railroad through the lower half of the country, and then they successfully built overland mail roads along that same proposed route. They wanted to legalize slavery in the Far Southwest, and again, they were relatively successful in doing that. And they wanted to basically strengthen the political power of slaveholders so that the slave states of the South would have an outsized influence in national affairs. And again, they were pretty successful.
So I want to get to the conversation about infrastructure in a second. But before that, I’m really interested in the influx of white Southerners who moved to California after its admitted as a state. They’re not only moving to California, they’re running for state office. So can you talk about kind of the impetus for that? And also the significance of all these Southerners running for state office and being elected in California?
Yeah, So there’s this great collection of letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society, written by a New England abolitionists who moves to California during the Gold Rush. There mostly letters to his wife and then some of these letters. He’s sort of puzzling through this question himself, saying Why is it that Southerners are such a small portion of the population here, but they represent such a large share of the political office holders, and his theory is that all the Yankees just are interested in business, and it leaves the Southerners with nothing better to do except run for office. And I think there might be a kernel of truth in that. So white Southerners represented just about a third of the voting population in California. They’re very hyped before the Civil War, but they occupied an overwhelming share of the political and judicial offices in the state. So how do I do it? It’s one of the questions I’m asking in the book and the answer. I come up with this sort of multi pronged. They do it probably most effectively by playing to white working class racism and fears that white men had about labor competition with non white men. They also these white Southerners had a very well oiled political machine, and they made really can use of the patronage system. The patronage system isn’t something we think about a whole lot in modern America because we have a civil service. But in the 19th century, a lot of the federal jobs were occupied by political appointees, and these jobs were really, really well paying by the standards of the time. And so slaveholders and their allies in California were really, really good at placing their friends in these well paying federal positions. And that’s sort of how they built their coalition and how they ran state politics in the 18 fifties. I mean, the Customs House in San Francisco was so full of these white Southerners on federal cynic years that it became known as the Virginia Poor House. It was just sort of an accepted fact that these Southerners would occupy what were called the plum posts of California. And so, in a lot of ways, the book is really a case study of minority rule. How this relatively small faction of white Southerners was able to gain political control of California. They actually replicated those strategies in New Mexico in Arizona, and to a certain extent, they did the same in Utah, too. But that’s a slightly more complicated story.
So you write that in the years before the war, particularly in Southern California, there’s a high number of enslaved people living in California, and there’s also violence directed towards indigenous people in all sorts of violence directed towards people of color living in California at the time. So I’m interested in how it’s possible that in a free state there is so much fun freedom. And I guess this kind of connects to all the other questions about Southerners in the politics of the South in California. But, yeah, how is there so much unfreedom in a free state?
Yeah, that’s a really important question. The number of African American enslaved people in in the Southwest is relatively small, couple 100 to maybe 1500 in California, maybe 100 in Utah, maybe 100 in New Mexico and Arizona. There were a lot more unfree Native Americans, and they worked in all sorts of coercive labor relationships of some of them were captured and sold directly into slavery. Some of them were trapped in these cycles of debt and turned into peon laborers, which was sort of akin to the sharecropping system of the South in a lot of ways that emerged after the Civil War. But basically these peons were lifelong, almost unpaid laborers, and in fact their debts could be inherited by their offspring and so that that form of servitude was perpetual and it was heritable. So if you were a wannabe slaveholder in the American West, there were all sorts of ways that you could acquire coerced laborers. And this is one of the reasons why when white Southerners looked to this region in the 18 fifties, they saw it sort of as an extension of the slave south. Maybe African American chattel. Slavery wasn’t as deep rooted in the Southwest as they would have liked, but they knew that if you wanted to acquire on free laborers, you could. And so, actually, white Southerners in Congress worked to defend all these forms of labour coercion because they understood that one system sort of buttress the other. And so one of the arguments I make in the book is maybe we don’t want to draw such a clear line between African American chattel slavery and forms of indigenous servitude that the two actually fed off each other, at least in the Southwest in a lot of ways.
So to kind of go back to this conversation about infrastructure, can you talk about the ways of the West and the South were connected not just through human relationships but also through roads and railroads and other infrastructure that’s developed in this time period.
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it, Alina, that they’re connected not just through these human relationships, but through roads. One of my favorite things to talk about is the history of railroads, which probably makes me lousy company at the party. But I think it’s really important to understand. And that’s because one of the major political debates in the antebellum era was over the location of the first transcontinental railroad. Where would it run it run across the three states of the North? Or would it run across the slave states of the South? And antebellum Americans understood that whichever section got this railroad would really control the most important commercial artery in the country, and it was a really bitter and fear sectional issue. We sort of forget about it because it’s not as sexy as some of the other debates at the time. And because the railroad never got built in the antebellum era, it took until 18 69 for America to break ground on a transcontinental railroad. So I think I call it in the book. A monumental nonevent, this debate over the transcontinental railroad. But Southerners and their Western allies actually got really close to the building, and they actually succeeded in constructing the first major Overland Mail road along the far Southern route. They poured a ton of federal resources into it, and this was arguably the most important infrastructural development of the era. And I argue, it was sort of a physical symbol to the linkages connecting the slave South and the Far West. It’s sort of a monument to the Continental South that we were talking about earlier,
So this is kind of a selfish question. But this podcast is coming out of the University of Texas at Austin, and in our last episode we talked about some of the lingering traces of slavery and the politics of former slaveholders, lingering traces of those things on campus. So I’m curious. Where does Texas fit into this slavery versus anti slavery politics, or at least the political arms of these political machines in the antebellum years?
I don’t think it’s a selfish question at all. It’s a really essential question. I would say Texas is a really important part of the book. Even though the book is really centered to the west of Texas, Texans are always sort of looming in the background or sometimes in the foreground. So the first chapter of the book opens with Texas Independence and the various expansionist fantasies of Texan slaveholders And then sort of sneaky Texans are always popping up in all the chapters. They’re the ones who are really bringing a lot of the enslaved African Americans into California during the Gold Rush. They’re the ones who occupy some of the big positions on the first Legislature in California and sort of help bend California towards a pro slavery political orientation. They’re the ones who really populate Southern New Mexico and turn Arizona into a Confederate territory at the beginning of the Civil War. And they’re also the ones who invade New Mexico during the Civil War in this attempt to create sort of a continental Confederacy. So it’s really hard to imagine the Far Southwest taking the shape that it does without the influence of Texas. I mean, it was really Texas that was the gateway to the Far Southwest and the slaveholders gateway to the Far Southwest.
That’s such an interesting way to put it. So my next question is kind of the international reach of the continental South. And so when I first started grad school, my family’s from Belize originally, and I did a lot of reading about the extension of the Confederacy and the goals of the Confederacy to look for more cheap or free labor in the Caribbean, in Latin America, in South America, and that really just blew my mind. And so, in reading your book, you mentioned the Pacific and the role the Pacific could play in these Confederate dreams for kind of expanding economically. So what role does the Pacific Plate politicians like John C. Calhoun and John Tyler saw the Pacific, whether they met San Francisco or Hawaii as critical to the expansion of the American economy for their location in free or inexpensive labor? So why was that? And how was that connected to the broader question of slavery versus anti slavery that’s happening in the antebellum years in the U. S.?
It’s interesting, Alina. I actually came to my interest in the history of slavery and sort of slaveholding expansion in a similar way to you, learning about slaveholders projects in the Caribbean and in the Atlantic. And I think that’s still how we think about American slaveholders there in this Atlantic context, right in really great books by Robert May and that car just point to all the ways that slaveholders, in fact, heavily influenced the Atlantic world. But what I’m arguing in this book is that they never really thought of geopolitics in terms of one single ocean basin so they could look simultaneously southeast to the Caribbean and west across the Pacific. And like you say, people like John Tyler, Virginia got really hung up on the Pacific, and they did so because they thought that China represented this vast untapped market for slave grown cotton, which seems sort of wild in China, is very far away. The U. S. Had relatively minor contact, minor commercial contact with China at the time, and the Chinese grew cotton themselves. But slaveholders in the U. S. Argued that their cotton was of a superior quality, which was true thanks to slave labor, and that there was actually sort of a wedge for cotton in the China market. And we don’t think of it. We forget. I think that Cotton is actually the leading American export to China through most of the antebellum period. I mean, the China market never lived up to the slaveholding fantasies for a lot of reasons, but it was a much bigger part of Southern geopolitics than we recognize.
So it all really seems connected to ideas about labor and whether that’s, you know, enslaved Africans or coerced Native Americans, native Hawaiians, Chinese workers and how to find cheaper forms of labour in order to dominate these markets. So I wonder how or if any of these things that we’ve discussed have changed in the years after the war, or if the goals remain. And I guess I’m wondering, what are the lingering traces of the Continental South after the Civil War?
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. The lingering traces of the Continental South. I should have used that in the book. So the Civil War obviously shatter slavery, and in some ways it breaks up the continental South because it breaks up the impetus behind the continental South, which is the extension of slaveholders rights across the continent, and slaveholders lose in this desperate bid to conquer the far Southwest during the war. They send them invading Texan Army out there, and they get demolished eventually. But, like you say, there are these sort of lingering connections. There are these threads that bind the slave south or buying now the knots of slave south to the Far West, and they’re a good deal more durable than we might think. So this transcontinental coalition is sort of reborn during the reconstruction era with a slightly different political focus. Obviously, these guys are no longer slaveholders, but they’re still thinking of all sorts of ways that they can coerce labor and how they can combat the racially progressive policies of the Republican Party. So forms of indigenous servitude survive in New Mexico all the way until the end of the 19th century. And they do, in spite of pretty vigorous Republican campaign, to stamp them out, to make freedom, not just apply to African Americans in the South but Native Americans in the Southwest. And that campaign, in a lot of ways, fails. You can still find indigenous slaves in New Mexico, really. Until the 18 nineties, meanwhile, California was the only free state to outright reject both the 14th and 15th amendments. So the most important measures of the reconstruction era that gave citizenship rights and voting rights to black men and actually the Ku Klux Klan crops up in California during the reconstruction era. The Klan in California is much, much smaller than the clan and the former Confederate states, and the KKK in California actually targets Chinese immigrants, not black Americans. Black people in California after the war really only represent about 1% of California’s population. But Chinese immigrants represent about 10% of the population and 25% of the workforce. So the Klan in California goes after Chinese immigrants as a sort of campaign, they say, in defense of white white labor rights. And so California, more really than any other state in the West really mimics the racist strategies of the South because they’ve learned through experience that those racist strategies are really, really effective, frighteningly effective.
Do you have any major takeaways from your book that you would like to leave our listeners with?
Sure, yeah, I think it’s just helpful or what I hope the book accomplishes. This gets people to think in New ways about the American West. I mean, I think there’s this really enduring stereotype of the West as a sort of frontier for rugged individualists and vigorous white men as a playground for these white men that somehow escapes all the major political issues of the Civil War era and escapes this debate over slavery. But you don’t really have to scratch that far beneath the surface of Western history to see that that wasn’t the case at all. That that the West was, in fact, another landscape of slavery. I think it sort of shapes Western history. To this day. California had more Confederate monuments than any other free state, right up until very, very recently. There were over a dozen monuments and place names in California dedicated to the Confederacy, and I think that’s sort of an imprint of this history. It had a long afterlife, I think, a much longer, more devious afterlife than a lot of Californians know or would care to admit.
- Episode 105: Slavery and Abolition
- Episode 42: The Senses of Slavery
- Episode 54: Urban Slavery in the Antebellum United States
- Episode 88: The Search for Family Lost in Slavery
- Episode 114: Slavery in Indian Territory
- Episode 120: Slave-Owning Women in the Antebellum U.S.
- Episode 6: Effects of the Atlantic Slave Trade on the Americas
- Episode 21: Causes of the U.S. Civil War (part 1)
- Episode 22: Causes of the U.S. Civil War (Part 2)